Dealing with distractions

Finding a goal, while being in a mode of reflection, is not yet the same as actually pursuing (let alone achieving) that goal. As soon as you're back in everyday life, responding to the ever changing stream of new situations, interactions with people, the successes and disappointments of your actions in the world, you'll find it difficult to remain focused on the goals you have decided to be the most valuable for you to follow. The ebb and flow of life is full of distractions, and even after you have managed to keep your goals at least in view (which, to be sure, is not a small achievement), you'll most probably find yourself in fact pulled away from them more often than not, by a myriad of little things that grab your attention instead, and actually doing something that is not in line with them.
(There is a temptation here to talk about 'real life' versus what you think about when reflecting: life as thought about 'in theory'. But talk of 'real life' here is misleading at best; at worst, it's a cheap excuse for failing to transform into action the results of your reflection. What you think about when you reflect on the whole of your life, on what's good and what's bad, both in itself and with respect to some specific aim, on what sort of person you should be and how you ought to work on improving your actions, views and feelings — what you think about when you reflect on all this is no less 'real' than what you encounter when you take action in everyday situations. If anything, it's more real, for it takes into account a lot more than what you are able to perceive while involved, when you're necessarily subject to a constrained viewpoint and under pressure to decide in time, which may leave you with insufficient resources to think everything through to a satisfactory level of depth. This talk about 'real life', as compared to what you look at in ethical reflection, is a sham. It merely is a plea to give priority to unconsidered impulses of the moment over considered principles and maxims; to give priority to ingrained behavior you've been conditioned to exhibit long ago over purposeful, sustained pursuit of goals you've found to have meaning in your life; to give priority to indulging weaknesses and yielding to easy comfort instead of doing what it takes to become the person that you ought to be. 'Real life', if that phrase has any sensible meaning at all, is the life you choose to life, after having carefully considered everything that matters in such a far-reaching decision. 'Real' it can only be if it is indeed the real thing, not the thing it seems to be just for a passing moment.)
Distractions, then, consist of two components: an external occasion, and your own tendency, or willingness, to allow that occasion (or some element within it) to pull you out of what you're doing and to induce you to do something else, or refrain from doing anything. (However mechanically it is that you follow a distraction, it is always you who is responsible for doing so.)
Part of the strategy will be to shut out those external occasions which lead to distractions — when it's possible. At many times, it's in your power to withdraw to somewhere quiet and secluded. This can be appropriate for tasks on which you work alone. (And that includes reflection on your own life, character and goals.) But that isn't always an option. It is equally important to remain in touch with reality, which requires seeking feedback, trying things out, and in general putting your views and strategies to the test of how they fare in the world of action. (That includes, again, reflection on your own life, character and goals.) It's important, then, to learn how to deal with distractions even when you're not able to prevent the external occasions from even happening.
The way to do this is to carefully and patiently register every time a distraction falls in, refrain from acting too quickly, check against your real goals and inclinations (those that come from your reflections), and only then take action. Initially, this won't always work, but you will make progress sooner or later, which will show mostly in your ability to recognize potential distractions early, controlling your own impulses to follow them mechanically, leaving you to choose actively more often instead. As so often, everything you need is patience, and a willingness to actively and deliberately shape your habits. (Note that these again are qualities of character of the sort you're going for.) With time, you'll notice that you get instinctively aware of many of the typical distractions, and now you'll find yourself almost mechanically refusing to be led astray by them. That's the habit you want to establish. Take care.

Conquer fears: feeling misjudged

What's the opinions of others to you, that you are anxious they're in your favor?
Knowing what other people think of you and your actions, how they perceive your behavior, can be important feedback. There are, however, differences in the way people express such feedback. The most helpful sort is descriptive: when people simply describe what they see you doing, and what the effects are, you can match this with your goals and your own sense of the situation. Unfortunately, that's not the prevalent sort of response we normally encounter. More often, people are judgmental. When they express their judgments of good and bad (however muddled, for what people think is good, or bad, most often lacks refinement and reflection), it's often rather hurting than helping. Especially those who are themselves timid and insecure tend towards dismissive, sweepingly negative statements; of course they often don't notice how much attitudes of that sort reflect on themselves rather than on what they're talking about. Yet, for all that, weak and foolish attitudes are contagious, and an echo of their insecurity will fall back on you, luring you into taking their judgments as valid measurement of the worth and value in your actions. Thus instead of ignoring the judgmental portion of their responses, you become afraid of it, and anxious to please those with the loudest voice and with the most judgmental style of responding to you. But that means to please exactly those who deserve it least: it's not for the judgments of others that we live our lives. Instead, you need to figure out how to distinguish descriptive from judgmental feedback behavior; try to learn from the former and practice keeping a healthy reserve against the latter.
(Also, in this line of thought there's something to learn for your own responses towards others: try to avoid judgment, be perceptive, descriptive and reflective. There's a time for criticism, and for claims about value, good and bad, and right and wrong. But it's appropriate less often than you might think, especially in everyday life.)
It's not just negative judgment that one should be skeptical about; there is also a danger in praise, including that praise which is often triggered by excellence. Since excellence of character is what we're trying to achieve in leading our lives, we might be tempted to take praise from others as a mark of achievement of that goal. That would be misguided. Not only can you be excellent without it being acknowledged, or even noticed; recognition may follow only later on; you also might be seen as excellent without actually being so — and thus from praise you can never infer you're making good progress. (Consider also how high the chances are that those who praise and call you excellent in truth are bad judges of excellence, being neither excellent themselves nor used to having it around them.)
It's a weakness, this anxiousness to appear excellent in the eyes of others. Be prepared to be excellent without anyone taking notice of it! Such anxiousness is always wrong: if you have excellence in some matter, you already have the more choiceworthy thing. Recognition may follow, or maybe it won't. But even if it does, it's secondary. It's even worse if you don't actually have the excellence in question: then it amounts to willing deception. You are deceiving both yourself and others if you go for the appearance of an excellence only.
As long as you can find so many faults just by looking at yourself, you have no business believing yourself excellent from someone else's saying so. The latter shouldn't be a goal for you at all. Take care.

Conquer fears: sickness and pain

What is pain to you, that it makes you fearful of it?
Pain is one of the most effective destroyers of momentum in living our lives. It can destroy motivation, hinder our ability to concentrate and think clearly, and block or veil our senses and so prevent us from perceiving our environment correctly and interacting with it effectively. Since it makes us feel bad, we fail to radiate positive energy, and our surroundings respond correspondingly, drawing the general mood into a downward spiral.
Since pain is often an effect of bodily sickness, fear of pain usually extends to fear of falling ill. And it's not just the accompanying pain that makes illness something to avoid: there's also often an anxiety that it may be 'serious', that it might hamper one's subsequent life by leaving some permanent damage (even the possibility of minor impairments can cause fear: some people are afraid of a strict dietary regime), or even might be terminal.
Observe, however, that this type of fear arises rarely in situations in which there is direct evidence that an illness is serious in this sense; rather, when it is clear what's to expect, people are often calm and composed. This suggests that it is more often the unacknowledged possibility, suddenly coming to consciousness, which disturbs, while a more composed stance comes into play when the actual course of future events is predictable.
Sometimes people report that a sudden heavy illness has transformed their lives by making them aware of the fragility of good health, and the uncertainty of their future in general. (Although in truth this is a little dishonest, for they knew about that all along for some time before; it's just that only now they started to take it seriously.) This does go down further on the path of reflection than many others ever achieve over their whole lives. That's because it makes them take their the whole life into account, not only the current stage with its actual painfulness.
We have to distinguish, however, between two main groups in this: one would be those who learn from such an experience that life time is limited, and wasting it for anything that's not of real value is something they will painfully regret. Those in that group have gained a real insight; chances are that they will now reflect much more carefully about their lives and what they're going to do with them. But there's a second group: those who constantly have to remind everybody (whether they want to hear it or not) how badly a pain they had to go through. This is a habit more targeted at exploiting empathy and feelings of pity (or sometimes a kind of boasting with the terrible things you've been through), and needless to say, it's not a helpful way of looking back for anyone. Again, there's a difference between looking at past ordeals as helping you to become a more solid and determined person in your quest for excellence, and taking them as a mere occasion for some yammering. (Add to this that complaining and whinging invariably increases the perceived badness of any pain, because the imagination amplifies exactly what you're fearing. As with any sort of fear, if you try to retreat from it, the badness will follow you; but if you stand up against it, it will ebb back.)
Remember that pain and illness themselves are indifferent — it's not they that make your live good or bad, but your attitude to whatever happens, including pain and illness. (Obviously, if you fail to avoid some preventable pain because of some foolishness, that is bad in a strict sense, but even then it's not the pain itself that is bad, but your foolishness that brought it about.) In this sense, painful experiences in themselves don't make your life better or worse, but pathetic whining makes it bad, while firm endurance makes it good, despite the misfortunes in it. (Some people's unimpressed holding out against severe illness and unfazed pursuit of their goals in spite of it has made them even widely known and admired for it. Enduring illness is an instance of courage.) It's not the amount of pain that counts in the end, for that's not something you can choose: it's rather how you treat it. Take care.

Conquer fears: death

What is your death to you, that it can frighten you?
Fear of death is a rather diffuse fear, and you'll find it tends to be elusive when you reflect and try to get a grip on it. Being dead is not like an experience (at least none that we can know of, or could have had any previous encounters with); it's not possible to imagine what it is like. And that's not because it is an experience that's so incredibly dreadful, but because it isn't an experience at all. When you're dead, you are no longer there to experience anything, and thus there is no such thing as you, experiencing whatever it may be like to be death. You can of course imagine a pitch-black darkness, accompanied by deep silence. But what you'd imagine here would still be you, as experiencing a situation in which there is no input to the senses — but not a situation in which you're no longer there. You can't imagine being dead, because there is no experience here to present to the imagination.
Sometimes what people imagine when they are afraid is not so much death itself, but the process of dying; they might imagine it as painful, or as involving inabilities for long periods. Another worry might concern the dignity they hope to be capable of during their last moments; this is often more about the perceptions of others than about themselves. These sorts of fear aren't quite as intangible as fear of death, but they're of a different sort, and we'll deal with them some other time.
Likewise, you can of course imagine how the life of others, such as your friends and children, might look like once you're gone, how they will live on without you. You can fear the impact that your death will have on the life of others, and that's indeed a deeper point: certainly the well-being of at least some people around you should be a matter important to you. And obviously, this significance lasts longer than merely to the end of your life's time. (Whereas your own sorrow and pain does end at that point.) In fact, most of us make some provisions for those we love exactly because we envisage the possibility we might not be around at all those future times when they might come into some need.
However, while it is a valid concern to some extent, we must also consider that as a matter of fact life will go on for all those we leave behind. In most cases at least, they will eventually recover from their loss. (And this is also what we should wish for them, unflattering for ourselves though it may be. If a person can never go on with their life after the loss of someone, however close they may have been, that shows something deeply problematic about the relationship that's been between them: it would look more like one of dependence and needfulness rather than one between people in full possession of their own integrity as a person.)
Another fear is that of an unusually early death, one at a time that marks perhaps only the middle of the average life time of the people around you. The sources of this fear are sometimes obviously questionable or outright foolish (such as jealousy: are others better than I am, so that fate lets them live longer? — or a kind of greed: wouldn't I've been able to travel to even more interesting locations, or could I've enjoyed more good food and wine if I'd lived twice as long?) In other cases, what disturbs those with this kind of fear rather is the thought that some of their important projects will be spoiled: they won't be able to complete some work that is most dear to them. This thought, though it's a worthier worry, still betrays a mild confusion. It has been clear and certain all along that death may catch you early, forcefully ending some projects you hoped you'd be able to complete; it's an ever-present possibility that you may fail to achieve some of the goals you think of as important. That's not of course a reason to refrain from taking on these goals at all; yet there has never been a guarantee that you would reach them, and if, in the end, you don't, that is not a basis for justified disappointment. If there's disappointment, then it comes from some false hope which you adopted in the course of pursuing your projects.
If you've come to make a project of such a sort a life-defining project, then you've chosen a project of the wrong sort. A proper life-defining project, a project that results in making your life a good one, can't rely on the assumption that your life will last a certain minimum amount of time (an assumption which cannot be guaranteed).
Death can happen at any time, in any one of many different ways. But even if it puts an end to a good life, the mere fact of its ending doesn't make that life less good. How could it? Every life has to end at some time, and when that time is will be arbitrary. Goodness of life is a quality, not a quantity. A life is good because of how well it's lived, not because of how long it continues. Take care.

Make excellence your aim

What sort of person lives a good life? An excellent person, a person of excellence. But then what does excellence mean? Since it is excellence as a person, we're talking about a quality of character.
Changing the center of discussion to talking about a good life in terms of the excellence of persons is an important move. Many things that happen in lives are accidental; not everything about them is within our sphere of influence. In matters of character however, of seeking correct views and developing adequate feelings about what's going on around you, of choosing carefully and aiming to do the right thing, it's always clear who is responsible: you are. Thus, although it doesn't add anything specific yet, the change of perspective from looking at what makes a life good (the entry point of ethical discussion) to asking what sort of person would lead a good life marks some progress already. Of course, this is still only the beginning of the journey, since now we've our work cut out in saying more specifically what it means to be excellent.
The term 'excellence', for one thing, can mean different things. One of its typical senses is that of being outstanding, being better at something, or more of something, than others. This sense implies a comparison with someone else; it's not what I mean by excellence. (It's not a helpful notion, for it makes excellence something that depends on external circumstance: you might be a bad person indeed, but live among a group of much worse ones, and in abominable circumstances — does that make you an excellent person? In that common sense, it would seem so. But not in the sense which I use; one wouldn't be excellent if one were just simply the smallest evildoer within sight.) And if it is not a notion based on a comparison, then we can't explain it in terms of degree either, for that would require some quantitative scale, some unit in which to measure.
It's often easier to recognize failure to be excellent than to detect excellence itself. (Candidates for excellent behavior may still turn out to fall short of actual excellence for many reasons, although it didn't show at first sight, whereas apparent non-excellence is rarely re-interpretable as being in fact excellent.) Worse, however, than failing to be excellent in a particular situation, is not even accepting that excellence is what we should go for (if we want to lead a good life). Not managing to achieve it, in a given instance, does at worst mean that you have to try harder next time, that you're not yet where you want to be (which, in all probability, will be the case most of the time). Not even aiming at it, on the other hand, indicates you're seriously misdirected, and with time you won't get closer, but you'll drift away from your most important goal (that of leading a good life, and spending your time wisely).
Such misdirection can show itself in many different ways. It may lead you towards greed in one of its myriads of forms: going for pleasure and convenience, splendor and luxury, power and wealth, fame and celebrity — any one of those false aims (or a combination of them) which have no measure built into them, which will drive you into wanting more and more, which will get stale under your hands even before your enjoyment of them ends, which will leave you with nothing of real substance after you have thrown a lot of precious life time after them; it may have you pushed around by fears and weaknesses: cherishing foolish hopes and illusions, giving in to nebulous anxieties and unsubstantiated fears, indulging in pointless lamentations and uncontrolled flare-ups, favoring aimless industriousness and taking the line of least resistance whenever there's a chance of getting through with it — all of them currents that will take you into regions where they get stronger and stronger, draining away your strength and freedom little by little every time you go along with them. The only way to lead a good life is to resist them always; in effect, that is what it means to become excellent. It may not work in many instances, but unless you make it your primary goal, the cases in which you fail and end up drifting in the wrong direction will outweigh those in which you do the right thing, form correct views and respond with adequate feelings. Unless you make a constant and determined effort to move in the direction of living a good life, unless, that is, you aim to become excellent, you will lose this struggle. It's an upstream swim: you can't hand yourself over to the current, let things drift just as they want, and still reach your destination. Take care.

Varieties of falling short

Once you've figured out that quality and strength of character is the single determining goal that should structure a life, a complicated net of paths to achieving that goal is laid out for you. Choices must be made all the time, and there are plenty ways of going wrong.
Let's start with feelings. Some people get emotional about the wrong sort of thing all the time; take for instance those who are unduly concerned with the opinions of others. They will be angry at you if on some occasion you spoil the effect they intended to make; they'll become nervous when they're running into a situation where they suspect they look bad; they are elated and inordinately cheerful when they've just landed a hit with their audience.
When people acquire such a disposition, then it isn't just their feelings which harden into a pattern. Actions follow: they will begin to do foolish things just to make a good impression, refrain from doing sensible things if there isn't an effect to make, they will make it a priority to seek occasions where they're seen in a positive light, ignoring other options which might have been better for them, all things considered. And finally, their views will be distorted: they will form opinions and beliefs, especially on what is good and what is bad for them, which are above all influenced by how well people think of them, and not by what is actually the case.
Just as the opinion of others can play this role of a false good, other things might as well. Some people get emotional whenever wealth and money are concerned, some when their personal wellness is touched, when physical comfort and the pleasantness of their surroundings is affected. As with those who are fixated on the opinions of others, those who make money or well-being the central concern of their lives are not just disposed to slide into progressively stronger feelings about them; they will also quickly have their actions, views and with them their long-term goals and projects influenced and finally dominated by them. In the end, there is a good chance that they'll have spent their whole lives chasing a false good, something that, as they are likely to find out, is not, and never has been, worth it.
Chasing false goods, however, is only one way of going wrong. Another one is to develop an aversion. Bodily pain, for instance, or being in a crowd with other people, is something that occurs from time to time in anybody's life. But if you've got an aversion against that sort of thing, then you will try to avoid it at all costs, and whenever possible. In the end, even having to face a single instance begins to look unbearable to you. In reality, you can at times avoid unpleasant or painful experiences, but you can't avoid them altogether, and avoiding is not always among the sensible options. Those who drift into strong feelings whenever there's even a small probability that they will have painful or unpleasant experiences, those who, that is, are subject to aversions of this sort, display the same pattern as those who chase false goods — they're just not chasing, but fleeing, and it's not false goods, but false evils which they are obsessed with. And again, it isn't just their feelings which become ingrained as a pattern: in their views and actions they will show the same unbecoming tendencies, they will form incorrect beliefs and act insensibly whenever their false evil is at the horizon.
(Especially if you think of more specific aversions, for instance to certain animals such as spiders, there are of course psychological or psychoanalytical explanations for these phenomena. After all, psychology includes exactly that: the study of these phenomena, and possible therapies. In addition, however, to what the best psychological theories take them to be, we always have to ask ourselves what stance to take to them in the first place: we should find an evaluative attitude that is based on reflection, and related to what we think is good or bad for us. If we don't, how could we ever know which of them to fight and which to tolerate? So, are we to simply accept them into our psyche? Perhaps even cite, as an excuse, certain reductionist theories which tell us that everything is hard-wired into our genes anyway, or that our childhood experiences will determine how we feel and what we do, whether we recognize it or not? Are we going to settle for an 'I will try my best, sometimes, perhaps'-kind of stance? Or shall we rather think it through what exactly the impact of such personality attributes on our own lives would be, and work hard to eliminate them, as a priority, exactly to the extent we take them to be harmful — even if that means to engage in a life-long battle with ourselves?)
So far we've only looked at getting emotional about the wrong sort of thing. There is another way to go wrong in your feelings, actions and views: you can become disposed to getting emotional about a range of different things, but always with the same emotion. This is what's called a proclivity: a habit of falling into the same sort of emotion all over, whether it's appropriate or not. Examples are timidity, or enviousness. If anything can frighten you (including a lot of things that most people wouldn't be afraid of), or if everything you see in use or in possession of someone else inflames your desire, then you're certainly not on a good path. It's this time not so much a wrong evaluation, taking a false good (or a false evil) as something that is genuinely good (or bad). It's rather a habit of falling into an emotion type too quickly and too easily, a proneness to fall for them on too many occasions, most of the times inadequately.
All sorts of habits (in feelings, actions, and in views) are in fact rooted in repetition, and learning: learning proceeds often by repeating some behavior. Habits thus originate in oft-repeated behavior which has transformed into dispositions to act the same way again and again. They've become traits of your personality, and so form an important aspect of what you are. And once they are in place, in many situations feelings, views and actions flow in a natural and often involuntary way from them. When they are thus ingrained, it is not easy to even recognize them; and you cannot change them immediately at will; but you can change them by building up alternative habits from more appropriate responses, which look to the real value of things. Of course, that requires patience and will. But it can be done.
And because patience and determination themselves are qualities of character, from a lack of them in forming good habits comes yet another way of going wrong: your good habits can be unstable, not yet capable of persisting through unfavorable circumstances, of remaining constant over a broad range of situations. That's what is called an infirmity of character: when a habit isn't hardened enough, and there are relapses. Infirmities are both a good sign and a bad one: for they show that you are on the right path, but they also indicate that you must push on and get further on it. Take care.

Good, bad, and indifferent

When reflecting, have you noticed that good and bad are mostly the categories that come to mind when deciding what to go after and what to avoid? Motivation comes from values, and we value what we're judging good or bad. (Values can be positive or negative, and these two directions correspond to what we take as good or bad in what we go for, or avoid.)
As before, what is meant by good or bad here has a strict and special meaning. 'Good' and 'bad' are titles reserved for what makes our life (seen as a whole), a good, successful one, or prevents it from being so. And that is not meant in a superficial sense of success; it is only if you think that you could die at any moment and still find that, all things considered, no things kept secret, everything reflected on as thoroughly as possible, that this life was well worth living it, then that's a good life. If you think you've been the person that you should have been, that you've made the best from what you've been dealt, that's what makes your life successful. Whatever brings your life closer to this condition can be called 'good', in the strict sense that we're talking about. What keeps your life from being so is 'bad'. The good and bad are precisely those things that make a difference in shaping your life. (Everything else, all that is neither good nor bad, is indifferent, in that it doesn't make a difference.)
Are money, fame or reputation good? No, they are not. Are weak and unthinking decisions bad? Yes indeed, they are. Are pain and losses bad things? No, they are indifferent. Are kindness, courage, generosity good things? Yes, for they do make a difference. You get the idea.
Indifferents are usually not undifferentiated when compared with each other: there are better or worse choices with respect to external things. Pleasant experiences are preferable over painful ones; a well-paying job, or one that brings a higher reputation, would be preferred over one that doesn't; if you can reach a goal easier, you'd avoid hardship or efforts.
However, that there is a better or worse choice with respect to something (for you to make) doesn't already make that something good or bad. Whether the objects of your choices (the things you choose from) are good, bad, or indifferent, depends on what those objects are. They're always merely indifferents if they're externals. Making good choices itself, on the other hand, is a good thing; deciding in an unconsidered or weak manner is bad; for how you exercise your choices (both those regarding externals and those in matters of character) depends on what sort of person you are, and how in general you live your live.
It may seem surprising, even harsh, to think of pains and losses, as I said, as indifferents. Is not the loss of a loved one, say, a bad thing for you, and quite obviously so? And isn't this true in general of the pain that comes from personal relationships that don't work out: the agony of being rejected, the fear of accidents that might bereave us, the nightmare of seeing ourselves betrayed by those we had loved and trusted, and who now turn away and hurt us? What can be called a bad thing if it's not that sort of experience?
The very last word in this formulation is revealing: should, in your view, an experience, a simple quality of how it feels, be significant enough to give it reign over the whole of your life? Is any pain, however intense it may be felt at first, a matter so important that the whole weight of your character, all your views and all your actions, should be focused on avoiding it, or coping with it once it's clear it couldn't be avoided? Think again: if you permit a single sort of unpleasant experience, a mere feeling of pain, such authority; if you allow the accidents of life around you shape the goals and contents of the only thing that's really, truly, yours (that is: your life time) — isn't that a most unworthy discount of that which really matters, and in the interest of nothing more than a mere passing pain?
There is no question that the experience of loss is intense, and treating losses as indifferents does not imply to take them lightly. As long as there's a choice (and as long as it is compatible with good qualities of character), you'll certainly do whatever is required to avoid them. Caution against dangers, a dedication to the well-being of those you love; a general pro-attitude towards what's in their best interest — all these are usually good indicators for the right priorities and good choices in what you do. Nor means treating losses as indifferents a discounting of the value of that person whom you lost, or of that relationship's value. It does mean treating the event, the turn of fate that brought about this loss as something that you don't give control over your life. If it had to be so that a loved one was with you for only a given time, then that is how it had to be; your life's been all the better for it, while it lasted. Unless you brought about the end of your relationship yourself by acting wrongly (whether it was wicked or just careless), that end isn't something within your control, and thus it can't be bad, just indifferent.
Of course, you might think that compared with what could have been, with a possible longer time together if things'd have gone differently, you are now off worse. But that comparison is vain. Once more: if some action of your own made things go badly, then there'd be room for regret. You might compare what is the case now with what might have been the case, and thus get clear about the consequences which your action had. But if it wasn't up to you, then there is nothing much to learn from that comparison. That which comes out of external circumstance alone is neither good nor bad, but indifferent.
In addition you should note that all personal relationships, even the most intense and stable ones, have their end date written on them; nothing lasts forever, and the chances are that you will live through quite a number of times when things are taken out of your hands and you're powerless. The other half of a relationship may leave it, or may even die. If you hope, of any of your current relationships, that somehow you'll avoid its end indefinitely, then you live a foolish hope. (You're only spared that experience when the other half outlives you; but then, the lot of loss will fall to them. That doesn't make it any better, at least not if you seriously cared about that other person.) The good in love and friendship is in the valuable time that you can spend in those relationships as long as they last; and if that time ends in the case of one of them, it wouldn't be wise to let all others suffer by wasting energy on something that is irretrievable now. Take care.


When we reflect we quickly notice that much that happens in our lives is at best partly up to us. As long as I'm free to pick my surroundings, I'll select pleasant ones over dire ones; when it is open to me, I'll select being with interesting people who help me get along better over those of the boring, self-centered or deceitful kind; if I can choose, I'll select peace and stability over a life of strife and uncertainty — who wouldn't? But we're often not in a position to choose with respect to such external circumstances (external in the sense that they're outside our own control). Whatever depends on them is subject to risk and uncertainty.
The only thing we can choose, and in effect have to choose, are we ourselves; that is, we choose our own selves. (We cannot not choose these.) Still, 'choosing' here means setting a goal and then working for it — there is no free ride in these matters; choice doesn't mean here that you simply choose and automatically are guaranteed to receive. Yet if we choose here we can achieve those goals, and whether we do achieve them is in our own power. That's a deep difference between choices in matters of character, of our own selves, and choices in external things. And this means, among other things, that choosing carefully and well here is vital.
A choice in matters of your own self has a higher impact on the success of your life than any choice in externals. In a sense, it has a more direct impact, for how you exercise choices in external things depends on who you are, and which goals you have set for being the person that you should be; thus choices in external things are better or worse in how well they fit with those primary choices. And from this it should also be clear that choices in external things shouldn't dominate choices in matters of character. They're secondary. Doing your own thing is more important than whatever else may happen to you from the accidental circumstances around you.
However, doing your own thing isn't a license to be careless or arrogant with others and what they do. Remember that attitudes such as these are elements of your character too, and thus part of those primary choices that shape your character and, in effect, your life. And you don't want to have your character influenced by carelessness and arrogance. Moreover, there's another, deeper point here.
When we select, there normally is a positive gain. For example, when you can choose and select a pleasant environment for your day; say, you decide to spend it in a beautiful park just outside town; then there's an option that's more pleasant for you than other options, which is why you choose it. But of course the set of options often isn't fully random. It's no accident that there are beautiful parks to spend some time in. (And they must be kept in order, safe from animals, chemical pollution, criminals or whatever else might spoil it as a place of recreation, and so on.) Similarly, if you can choose being with people who inspire, or living in peace and prosperity, that will partly be because someone keeps up these options. Many of the positive gains which are there for you to select come from the work of other people; sharing in the fruits of their efforts constitutes an interpersonal relationship with them: you owe them a debt of gratitude. (Some other gains are just given by nature or the result of blind circumstance, and of course there's then no point in being thankful for those.) Gratefulness then is a counterpart to the freedom to select. As other attitudes, this one should also be a part of your character; it's a primary choice as well. Take care.

Constancy in reflection

When we reflect is up to us (generally, the more often the better). And there is good reason not to accept delays.
It seems to be a fairly common tendency to postpone reflecting on what you want to do with your life to some later time: when you have the requisite leisure, say, or when you've made sure that your career is well on its way. Sometimes people who have this tendency make that decision expressly, but mostly it just remains implicit in what they do (and in what they don't do). But it's easy to see the error in this choice. If you postpone reflection on your character and on the whole of your life in order to do something else first, then whatever it is that you do first has a higher priority for you, whether you admit it even to yourself or not. What's worse: because you haven't even thought about it, it is very likely that your choice is a result of some influence (who says that building your career is the best and most valuable thing to do with your life?) rather than your own considered views. In other words: whatever reasons there may be for choosing as you did, they were not really the reasons for you to make that choice. There may always be better or worse choices for what you could do with your life than the one which you actually made — but not choosing at all is certainly one of the worst.
If, on the other hand, you do choose, and if you take care to reflect well, the reward will be a sense of direction for the whole of your activities, an overall state of control of your life, a calm and conscious enjoyment of the best possible condition you could be in: a state of excellence, of having actualized your potential, of happiness that grounds in your own self and not in accidental turns and twists controlled by chance nor lucky gifts from fate and fortune.
But obviously it can be stable only if you do something for it. It needs a certain constancy and some determination to keep up reflection; it's essential that you never cease to think about your life afresh, to scrutinize yourself and ask what you can do to get more closer to becoming the person that you want to be, to check if all your actions, views and feelings correspond to what they should be if you'd reached that goal. There is no such thing in life as a premature decisive win. Once you are committed to a life of excellence, with every new day you will have to find out where you stand and work on steadying and improving that current status. Every time you don't, you'll just fall back and have to win the lost ground back in what will be an uphill struggle. It is wise to not get there right from the start. You can avoid predicaments like that by never tolerating a delay in that vital reflection on your life and character. Take care.

Ground your life in excellence

When we reflect about the whole of our lives the question we ask ourselves is whether there is a way that makes them worthwhile, something that is a ground for a life's being a good life, a way for someone (that is, for you and me) to be the person we should be, the best we can make of us and of what's being dealt to us by blind fate and the accidental circumstances of our lives. Once you've found an answer to that question (even if it's only a tentative one), there's a new project for you, one that grounds your life.
Not all kinds of project are well-suite for playing this role in your life, however. You neither know when and where your life begins nor when and how it ends, in the relevant sense of beginning and ending: it begins only when you start reflecting on the whole of your life, when you figure out what to do with that life, what sort of person you want to become; it ends when all your actions have played out and their consequences are felt and consumed in the world (part of which might well happen even after your death). But the crucial thing here is that you cannot know. No-one ever can. And that imposes a constraint on the grounding project of your life: it excludes a certain type of project, the type that has a structure stretching over time, builds up and ends in a climax, reaching a high point which serves as a focal point: projects such as winning a championship, or becoming the CEO. There is nothing wrong of course with such projects in themselves; but they aren't suitable as grounding projects for the whole of your life.
Partly that's because in a project of that sort you can fail simply by succeeding. Your life is not a movie that can end with the images of the climactic moment — there is always a period after it, and though that may be fine if all this only was a project among others (you might enjoy being the CEO even more than you enjoyed becoming it, or use your status as the champion to work on training the young or become an ambassador for the environment), it's bad for you if it was the sole, defining purpose of your life, for this would mean that now you have a meaningless life on your hands.
And if your project fails for some external cause (external, in this case, means outside your own strength and activity), then stupid circumstance has had the power to defeat the purpose of your life. Thus it is not a good idea to make a project that depends on a certain structure playing out in time a grounding project.
The grounding project, then, must not be something that's exhausted in a single climactic moment. It has to be something that results in a stable condition — something that can't be taken away from you by causes external to your control. So, if we can choose, we should choose something with which we don't run that risk: a condition. Excellence.
(And of course we can choose. Remember: the starting point was reflecting on what a good life would be for you, what sort of person you would want to be. If there is anything that you can choose yourself, this is it. Everything else may be subject to an unlimited variety of factors outside of your control. This single thing is what's in your control entirely. You decide.)
Excellence of character is the condition that you're looking for. It provides a general purpose, a ground for your life. It's got the potential to make your life a good life, and successful (for success consists in achieving this goal, and if anything is, this is in your control); it can give it a primary direction, and guide decisions in specifics; it will make it worthwhile, and one worthy of a good person.
Of course, in pointing to excellence as the condition that grounds a successful life, I am merely gesturing at something that is not yet very specific; it has to be refined partly in response to the particular situation you're in. (That is, both to the circumstances around you and the current state of your character.) Just calling it the grounding project of a good life to achieve this condition doesn't make it really clear what it would mean for you to get there. So far it's just a slogan, not yet an idea that simply can supplant some serious reflection of your own. Take care.

The end and the beginning

When we reflect, we take a stance to our lives as a whole; as a whole, a life has a beginning — and an end. There are things that don't have a beginning and an end: circles, the universe perhaps, and the boundless possibilities of human freedom. But your life, as a whole, has a beginning and an end.
Contrary to first appearance, the relevant beginning and end of a life don't have to be very definite. Let's start with the beginning: when does your life in the relevant sense start? That's difficult to pinpoint: is it the moment of your birth? Or your conception? Some time in between? Most would agree today that our existence as a conscious being sets in at some time between our conception and our birth, but only somewhat after our biological existence begins we become a person, with an awareness of our surroundings and a capacity to interact with our environment. Even then it will take some time until we are sufficiently capable to make our own decisions, and that is a capacity which we reach at different stages in our early lives with respect to different sorts of decisions.
For formal and official purposes there is the notion of legally coming of age; but for the question we are concerned with here, that stipulated point in our biographies is too late to count as the starting point. Think of someone who gets interested in music early in her childhood and pesters here parents to buy her an instrument, say: a violin. She starts learning it, receives lessons, enjoys performing at school concerts — and it grows so important that she already knows she wants to do this all her life, discover the endless repertoire, become a professional musician, be on stage every day... Sure enough, for many of us that sort of thing may just a passing fancy, or a mere stage in our youth that phases out later and loses its seriousness and relevance. But that's not so for all people, and many of those who achieve admirable heights in the sports, arts or sciences actually have had this sort of childhood determination. And isn't that an exemplary form of taking charge of your life? At least for cases like these, the relevant beginning of a life as a whole is much earlier than the legally fixed one. And probably the same applies to most of us: the beginning, in the relevant sense, of our life as a whole, the life we choose and shape when we reflect, is when we take it in our own hands. For some, it's a momentous decision at some definite time in their youth; for some, it may be a continuous process; and it can set in much earlier, or somewhat earlier, or for some it might even come later than the legal coming of age. (For some, that moment never comes, and that is certainly a bad thing: for if you never take control of your own life, ever content to be defined by whoever happened to have influenced your ways, if you are simply drifting lazily and indecisively along, that is a life that doesn't justice to your potential as a human being, endowed with reason and the freedom to choose and direct yourself where you're going — however 'normal' and developed you may appear to those around you, it'd be quite as good if you'd never even been around; it would be justified to say that in a certain sense, the sense that we're discussing here, you haven't really lived your life at all.)
The moment when our live ends is not that definite either. In a strictly biological sense, your life ends at your death; however, there can be extreme conditions (such as a coma, or a radical deterioration) which put a stop, often a final one, to everything that matters. What remains then is a continuation of life only in a biological sense: can this count as still being in charge of your life? Doesn't the relevant period in which you are in charge rather end with the loss of your ability to take your own decisions? (Although it is a matter of considerable debate exactly where to draw the line, there is general consensus of a distinction between someone's being a living person and their merely being alive in a biological sense; a human being can lose the ability to function as a person before ceasing to function in a biological sense.) This would not mean your value and your status as a human being, and with them the respect that we pay to any human life as a matter of principle, would be lost. But once again we see that legal rights, moral worth, and ethical relevance do not have to coincide with respect to their timing, and in fact they rarely do.
Thus, paradoxical as it may sound, your life can end before your death (in a strict sense) — or it can extend till after your death (in the same strict sense). Think of lasting works which may outlive you; or examples of heroic action: you might die while you explore the unknown territories (nowadays these might be space, perhaps, the arctic or the deep sea), and still, as long as you reach the goal of your expedition, then your life as a whole has fulfilled the purpose that you chose, whether or not you can yourself enjoy the success, its fruit and recognition by the world and others.
What applies to achievement can apply to failure, too: in the same way in which the whole purpose of your life can be fulfilled after you have died, it can also be defeated. Imagine, for example, you have dedicated all your energy to the single goal of building a school in a poor region. When you're dying after years of effort, and you take a final look at your work, it seems to run now on its own steam; you have left it to capable successors whom you trust; you have recently noticed how it's generally appreciated in the village — and yet, by a cruel turn of fate, just a couple of days after your own peaceful death, a stupid strife destroys the school in a single bomb drop, along with most of the village, and kills or drives away many of those you had hoped would have a better future thanks in part to your contribution.
So, with the end of your life (in the relevant sense) it is just the same as with the beginning: it is not necessarily a definite moment in time, such as your biological death. It can be earlier or later than that; it can even draw out over quite some period. And unsurprisingly, just as with the beginning, there's a lot about your end that cannot be controlled.
A first important step to get a grip on your life as a whole is to accept that there will be an end: that yours is only a limited amount of time, that you will, sooner or later, have to take stock — but also that for all that, it is not generally under your control just when the end will be, or how it comes about. How much time is left to us, how long the period remaining will be between now and the end (whenever it is), is never known to us.
Nobody can choose to be born, of course, but what about your death? Don't we have at least some control about the end? Let's assume that in some cases it makes sense for you to decide that the end should be brought about right now. Whether that means to sacrifice your life for some higher purpose (as countless martyrs have chosen to do, though often in decisions that seem open to question from the point of view of calm reflection) or to end it in the face of some unbearable condition (illness, perhaps, or political repression), it is obviously possible: you can decide to put a stop on your life, and act on that decision.
Of course, you can only stop it in the biological sense. But as we've seen, this is not an exercise of control over the end of your life (in the relevant sense discussed here). Whether your life is successful or not, whether in the end it is a good life or not, is determined only in the end, and that end may not coincide with your biological death. A decision to bring about your biological death about is an act of control within your life (and as such is a decision that must be responsibly taken; it is probably one of the hardest decisions at all to take, for its irreversibility and the enormous significance it will have, not only for yourself, but also for many of those who know and love you). It is not, however, an act of controlling your end. There's no such thing. Take care.

Resist enticements

Whenever you look around, there are so many small things that look attractive at first glance: opportunities to gain some money quickly, easy pleasures or unthinking applause from those who don't know what's worth praise and what isn't.
Perhaps you have some social skills, some power or influence somewhere — then there's a constant temptation to misuse them for gaining quick advantage; or you know you'll get away with some weak and improvised performance most of the time — so you take your chances more often than you should, skipping thorough preparations; you know that some promise of gain will open doors — and thus you give such a promise, bringing harm either to yourself when you don't keep it or to others when you do, and signal them that it's not merit that counts but only whom you know and owe.
It takes some practice to recognize enticements of that sort, and some caution and will to resist them. But resist them we should. They harden bad habits, making it more and more difficult to get rid of them. All decline of character is progressive. Every time you yield to it, it gets more and more ingrained. What's worse: unless you have stabilized better habits for a long time, and very strictly, it's horribly easy to slip back. A small indulgence can be sufficient to bring it all to the front again and toss you right back to where you started. Alertness is in order, and a strict and rigorous weeding out of all temptation. What looks like only taking small and inconsequential steps that really shouldn't matter will inevitably turn out such that you will pay for it, albeit later. Take care.

Ostentatious reclusiveness

Reflection is a quiet business that requires focus, and it often helps to actively seek solitude, to keep distractions away and to avoid the influence of those who promote competing values. (Such things as people take for values, like money, fame or pleasure.)

When you withdraw, observe yourself: do you subtly make sure that people notice it, that you are seen as doing something that looks grave and important? Do you manipulate the perception of others so that your reclusiveness looks like a deliberately chosen way of living, do you try to make that impression?

It is all well that you are searching for truth in self-dialogue, seeking out weaknesses in yourself, in your actions, views and feelings, your character and your overall ideas of how to live your life. And these are things of some momentum; they really are important; they are the only things that matter in the end. But then what other people think (or perceive) should be of no interest here, right? This should be a dialogue exclusively with yourself. Perhaps you'll ask others for advice, or discuss ideas with them — in this sense, it's not required to exclude others. But obviously, these are not activities you have to withdraw for, quite the contrary. When your withdrawal has a hidden agenda with respect to others, then it never is an interest in getting their support, but in being recognized: a desire to be admired for it. Turning your back on people is a showy sort of action; think hard, however: what would be that important about your not being around? Priding yourself on your retreat and your philosophy is itself a sort of ambition and of boasting.

And so is being too secretive and totally withdrawn from people's eyes — it is more subtle, and it takes a little longer for people to notice, but the idea comes from the same source. It's attention-getting in disguise (making your absence felt so that it draws people's attention).

There's not much point in trying to persuade yourself (and others) that you are someone who thinks so important thoughts that your solitude mustn't be interrupted for the good of mankind. If you want to be able to focus, by all means make room for it, and take care that you get the quiet you need. But it's not something that anyone besides yourself needs to know. Take care.

Unfavorable situations

Good qualities of character never come easily. Not only do you have to recognize a deficit in your own attitudes in the first place before you can begin correcting it; not only do you have to work for a long time and take a lot of setbacks to effect a lasting change; but even when you are in general capable to do the right thing in all sorts of situation, it takes an effort every single time. When people show, for instance, admirable composure and control under stress, that is not usually so because it's 'just their personality' — it's something they have mastered in a long and rigorous quest, and in addition, it's an act of will to do it freshly on every new occasion. It is an excellence of character that manifests itself in such endurance; an excellence that has been built up successfully and yet requires energy and determination again and again. And some qualities, such as endurance indeed, couldn't even be found in situations other than those which bring stress, confusion, pain and injustice.

By now it can begin to seem that quality of character is inextricably bound to unfavorable circumstances in order to be applied. If it is good to show courage opposite danger, patience when facing tedium, moderation in view of temptations: are then not danger, tedium and temptations good things as well, at least in the sense that they can give occasion for good attitude? And what about bravely enduring pain, say, during medical treatment, or even, more dramatically, under torture? Justice, if you know you have been treated badly? Calm and restraint in the middle of a nervous crowd? If these are admirable qualities, then are not pain and torture, grievance and turmoil also of some good? Should you (a sort of pervert argument might go) even wish for these if you're intent on building a good character?

Not so fast. In every situation there are aspects that we can control, and others which we cannot influence. In general, our attitudes are of the former sort: it's up to you how you behave in any kind of circumstance. (Although we may at times experience ourselves as unable to control our attitude in the heat of the situation, that is a shortcoming that can be addressed in the long run.) We cannot always choose the situations which we'll find ourselves in, but we can choose what attitude to take once we are in them. And if we cannot choose whether we get into a certain situation (say, a medical treatment, as in the example above, with all the pain that may go along with it), then there's no point in wishing or hoping for it to happen (or, in this case, to being prevented from happening). It's just a waste of energy. We can, however, wish to take a decent attitude, and wishing this can eventually motivate us to invest the effort that is necessary to actually do it: to take that decent attitude. (A side remark: there is no point in hoping here, either; you don't hope that you'll behave properly, it's something that you have to do.)

It is consistent with this view to avoid unfavorable situations, if that's in our control (and if we do not compromise ourselves by it: caution is a good quality of character, cowardice is a bad one). That is because situations of this kind are precisely not good, or bad, just in themselves. However, if we do in fact get mixed up in such a situation (or even if we just envisage the possibility), then there is a choice: namely, the choice of which attitude to take; and here we wish for exercising that choice correctly: in favor of a good attitude (in this example that's endurance, not giving in and compromising self-respect and love for others just for being relieved from pain or getting off the hook quickly).

In truth, what's good or bad are only the character qualities themselves, not the situations. The conditions of our surroundings obtain independently of someone displaying good or bad character in them. People may be in painful or stressful situations and fail to endure them, they may act weakly and immorally. Or they may act admirably, refusing to let themselves be driven by stress-induced confusion or the desire to avoid pain, achieving control and even success from within such adverse surroundings. What is good, and thus worthy of wishing for, are not the circumstances, but that we act in them just as we should. Take care.

Ethical perfection

When we work to improve our character (and thus our lives), the limiting point for this activity is ethical perfection. Perfection is the state where no more improvement is conceivable, the ideal state in which everything fits. This is a very interesting concept. To get more clear about it, let's speculate a little about what having a perfect character would be like.

Perfection is not a 'more or less' concept. You can't be perfect to a greater or lesser degree. You can't be perfect in just one sense, but not in another, too. You also can't be perfect at some times only, and not at other times. If you were perfect, that would show itself in your judging, feeling and acting exactly right, in every respect, under any circumstances.

Take honesty as an example. Ethical perfection would mean, among other things, to be honest on every occasion that requires it. (Moralists disagree over whether it is always wrong to be untruthful, or whether it depends on the context, or the consequences; let's for the moment assume there is an answer which settles this general philosophical question: 'being honest on every occasion that requires it' then means for our purposes being truthful at least on all occasions which are determined by that answer as requiring it.) And of course, that means honesty not only in your overt actions, but also in your views and feelings.

But you wouldn't have a perfect character (even with respect to this single trait, honesty) yet; it's not enough to be in fact honest on all these occasions, if you get into them. It takes more: you'd have to be honest under all conceivable circumstances in which it would be required. Your character must be such that you'd be honest on every possible occasion, whether life happens to bring you into that situation or not. Let's assume you are disposed so that you are honest at each and every sort of occasion, with only a single exception: in periods of sleep deprivation (in which you become, by a curious quirk of personality, a compulsive liar). Now assume further that in fact, you never get into a situation in which you suffer sleep deprivation, that the whole circumstances of your life make it extremely improbable that you'd ever come near such a condition. So you're never lying, you're never even likely to do so, you don't have the resemblance of a serious thought of it — and still, that doesn't count as perfection. It's not perfection for the mere possibility of your lying which isn't eliminated, even though it never comes to be actualized.

Psychological studies have shown that people's behavior in accordance with a given character trait depends much on context: many people aren't reliably honest at all, and even those who are often cease to be dependable in unusual contexts, or contexts unfamiliar to them. (Which doesn't show, of course, that there aren't character traits, such as honesty. It does show, however, that the stability of a person's characters isn't a given from birth, and even those who set out to improve theirs have much more work cut out for them than just that of making it stable for common circumstances. It's a more extensive task than it seems at first glance.) The goodness that we're looking for in perfection of character is something that includes stability over all circumstances, even the merely remotely possible ones. It's not that of the 'good enough', or that of the 'good for most purposes'.

Ethical perfection, like everything else in matters of good and bad, does not depend on circumstance. What can be either so or otherwise, just by a different turn of events, must not count in when we examine the quality and success of our life and character. A perfect, but by chance untested, character would be as good as an imperfect, but untested, character would be bad. It doesn't matter whether it's exercised, for the question of perfection what counts is only the condition itself, not whether and how often it is tested by actual circumstances.

And of course, just as the mere lack of occasion doesn't make a character weakness irrelevant for perfection, the converse does also hold: nothing in a circumstance of life can make it even better for someone who already has reached perfection. If you're in that condition, then no turn of luck can add anything relevant (it wouldn't have been perfection, if that were possible). To remain with our example: if you are perfect in that you are honest at all occasions which require it, then you are not made better or worse by a course of life that brings you more or less often into such situations. What counts is ethical perfection as such, and not how often it shows itself in concrete circumstance.

Remember, though, that we have looked only at a single quality of character here as an example, namely honesty. It goes without saying that perfection would include not only this one trait, but a host of others: courage and justice, steadfastness and moderation, kindness and generosity, prudence and thoughtful reflectiveness; they're all just names for your arriving at correct views and adequate feelings, and acting well in the endlessly varying constellations of our lives. If you'd get it right in every single instance, that would be the sort of ethical perfection we were talking about. Take care.

What there is

There is a branch of philosophy, called 'metaphysics', that is concerned with the general structure of reality: what it is made up of, and why it is this way rather than another.

What sorts of things are there in the world? It's not quite clear, to begin with, that 'thing' is even the right word; certainly there are those familiar
physical items around us, such as tables and trees, and they quite naturally fall under that label. But what about cultural items, like stories and songs? And when we look into our inner lives, aren't there also such psychological items as memories and moods, or, on the more complex side, logical reasoning or angry resentment? And what about rather abstract kinds of things? Take numbers, nation states, or natural laws. Are these all real? What does it mean if we count such different things as numbers and trees into one and the same category, that of the real? (Note how by now we've come to use the term 'thing' very broadly.)

And do we also include what we can't observe, but might postulate in order to explain phenomena? Evolutionary processes, elementary particles — in what sense can these be taken to be real? One could well make the case that they must count at least in
some sense, since much of our account of the rest of reality hangs upon them; and don't we make a difference still between those postulated entities that we do accept (like electrons, for instance) and those we don't (like ether)?

From this latter case, we can also see something like a criterion emerge for what counts as real and what doesn't: at least as long as we talk about things which we have to assume for their explanatory value, that very explanatory value accounts for why we think they are part of reality. Indeed, an influential line of thought sees practical and explanatory value as the prime indicator of reality. (The idea here is that in the long run, nothing could have that sort of value if it wasn't really there.)

In more ordinary contexts, we can distinguish between objects which are artificially made, with some purpose, and those which are already there, which we just find in our encounters with the world around us. We can distinguish between the natural and the artificial; this includes a recognition, and perhaps, in fact, an appreciation of what's man-made. (Making this distinction requires not just an idea of the value that is in something man-made, i.e. the life time of effort spent on it, but also an idea of what it would mean, or what it did mean, to someone to produce the thing in question.) And as with theoretical items, artifacts seem to owe at least some of their reality to that practical (or perhaps in some instances, aesthetic) value that comes from being purposefully made.

In some sense or other, things fill up our world. I've used some made-up categories to group them together (with categories like 'physical', 'cultural', 'psychological', 'abstract' and 'theoretical', 'natural' and 'artificial'). And groupings such as these come easily from the way we use language to refer to them. But does that fact reflect a real structure, one within reality itself, or is it just a matter of convenience for our practical purposes, and arbitrary? Are some of these categorizations better, more natural, more adequate than others? And if they are, what makes them so?

Moreover, we have still just looked at
things (and their categories). But is it actually correct to assume that reality primarily consists of things? Doesn't it also include facts, such as that it is raining here and now? And what about mere possibilities (which aren't the case, but might have been, such as that there's a rainbow over there)? Perhaps, as some insist, once we've admitted facts and possibilities, there's actually no need anymore to reserve a section for things, for things are already included in the totality of facts (facts always cover one or more things, as we know them, but they are more comprehensive, since they account for relations between things as well).

It's a wide field, and we can get carried away quickly into regions quite abstract and general. Why do we ask questions about these matters? It's not only for practical purposes; though it's partly that: categorizations and generalizations come in useful in science and technology (they enable explanation and prediction for many kinds of phenomena), so it should be of some use to look at how and wyh we build concepts, and categorize them. Nor is it just for inspiration or edification; though in part it's that as well: we inquire into what there is, into why there is anything at all in the world, into what makes everything move in order to learn about our place in all this, to get a sense of our own relative importance. Having a glance at the whole of reality is a way of breaking free from reactive mode, from being controlled by local influences and circumstances. In this it's similar to looking at the whole of one's life, which brings a similar correction of perspective.

Perhaps the most important motive, however, for asking these questions is to get more clear about the foundation of our ethics. Ultimately, what we want to know is how we should live — and no one can live a good life who gets out of touch with reality. For our way of living, and our goal of forming a good character, we are looking for a firm and reliable grounding in an account of the world as a whole, of nature and society, and our place in them, both as an individual and all together. Take care.


The philosophical literature is like an intellectual stream, running through the centuries. Some of its stretches are fast and quirky, some are broad and calm: novel ideas have been generated at times in astonishing number over a short period, while at other times a systematic working out took place, slowly and carefully elaborating details rather than shaking up the foundations. In part these philosophical texts constitute a dialogue, an exchange between past and present writers, with the later minds trying to understand the questions (and the answers) of the earlier minds, as expressed in their writing. Partly, it's a process of differentiation: getting deeper, more subtle, more thorough than anyone before. (In this respect, there is a parallel with science: we can today analyze natural phenomena much more finely, deeply and comprehensively than our predecessors, not least because technology has advanced so much.) In addition, it is also a process of transcending what's there, of overcoming old hindrances and stepping across borders. It's not merely stacking up more knowledge then, not simply adding to, but a genuine going beyond what's known already — broadening the scope of our intellectual endeavors further and further.

Yet these days, since we have a wealth of historical data and heaps of interpretations of them, any intellectual achievement might appear small in range and impact compared to what is already there. It's natural for it to seem so. But what this shows is not that intellectual achievements aren't what they were anymore, but that we should be wary of the instinct to automatically compare everything with what we take to be its historical peers. Good things are good because they're good, and not because they are like similar things in the past. (Part of the instinct to take something as good only if there is a historical parallel is the expectation, supported by long experience and observation, that something that worked well once will probably work well again. And there is nothing wrong with that; it's just that it doesn't follow that something which
doesn't have a parallel in the past will for that reason fail to work.)

We must be weary of the expectation that only the novel is worthwhile, and especially suspicious of the notion that primarily the spectacularly novel merits attention. Let us trace back this expectation a little.

When we admire novelty, what exactly is it that we admire? The arts provide us with an instructive parallel: we have come to admire novelty as a mark of great art, originality counts above all else (even beauty). Don't we discount a work of art, or a performance, if it doesn't do anything
new, if it doesn't show us anything that wasn't seen or heard before? Is it not a quick and nearly instinctive critical response to point out a similar work or performance that came earlier and did the same thing? Contrast this with former times; what was relevant then wasn't so much originality, but mastery of the material and the inherent rules of the game that was appreciated in art. It was a human excellence, not a historic event (the emergence of something novel) that was admired. Just copying things did not count as good, of course (since copying other works doesn't display mastery on your part), but there was nothing wrong with a simply conventional, though artfully crafted piece of work: you didn't have to break with all conventions and produce something historically unique in order to be appreciated. What guided appreciation was something else.

Philosophy is different both from science and art: it's not just about collecting truths and insights and building theories and systems out of them (thought it is partly that); and it's not just about bringing about something novel and unique (though it's partly that as well). Mere novelty and mere truth are not enough, they aren't the central thing. (They are part of it, however, and thus philosophy does overlap with, and connect to, both science and art.) There is an ongoing intellectual exchange in it, which is part of our culture; or more strictly, it is part of
any culture, even though not everybody in any culture would participate in it. It is first and foremost an attempt and effort to understand the whole of reality; and it involves a sedimentation of insights and attitudes from earlier traditions (and other cultures). That it is ongoing means to constantly take up, interpret, digest and assimilate earlier thought; it also means, however, to develop novel thought in response to changes in the world, emerging new insights elsewhere, observation of success and failure, and much more. When we engage with the literature in the intellectual stream of philosophy, running, as it is, through the centuries, we must at the same time admire and recognize great depth and difference, and have the courage to strive for it ourselves. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.